February 17, 2019

Shaking and Breaking in the Land of Assumption

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

My Daimler has been an education.  Not in every way you’d imagine, either.  In fact, old cars in general are fascinating subjects.  They’re surprising in many ways that hold unexpected cultural ramifications.

The car has led me to several inescapable conclusions.

First, the Daimler is always going to be a high-maintenance automobile.  It’s not just the performance that’s to blame, although that’s certainly a large part of it.   There’s a problem assigning fault.  It’s very difficult to draw a line between performance and what was designed for other reasons.  For example, by today’s standards, the chassis is far too light for the car’s horsepower.   The resultant body flex allows vibration which, in turn, raises other issues.  Have the distributer points loosened, wiring come undone or the timing slipped?  It all requires constant vigilance.

Please note this isn’t just my car.  These problems are raised in the maintenance manual.  Truly.  There are mileage intervals given for checking and retightening the points, distributor terminals and various other vibration-prone areas, too.

Are these performance issues or side problems?  The weight-to-power ratio is an all-important number in performance.  Where’s the balance?  What were the thoughts at the time that settled that number where it is?  I assure you that there were reasons.

Because the Daimler’s designers knew that ratio as surely as I do.  They weren’t stupid.  Far from it.  In fact the cultural snobbery and intellectual bias which could even consider that possible is a weakness that must be discarded.  The designers simply used assumptions I’m overlooking to come up with ingenious solutions to problems to which I’m blind.

This is why old cars are so fascinating.  They’re time capsules, history lessons and very thought-provoking studies.

Because our problem today is that we take so much for granted.  That’s extremely unfortunate.  We simply assume that diesel power and live hydraulics have always gone together.  The same assumption applies to so many other perfectly matched pairs.  Like apple pie and ice cream, wine and cheese, mechanical duos abound.  But the Daimler was designed before electronic  ignition, computerized advance, hydraulic lifters and certainly planned obsolescence were ever conceived.

The proof of that lies in one fact.  The Daimler is a luxury sports car without half of what we consider essential to that genre today.

There’s no air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, GPS, stereo system or hosts of other features that have evolved since.  Further, as mentioned, it’s far, far from  maintenance-free.

That makes inescapable another conclusion.  The designers knew that when they built the car.

Think about that.

The public must have known it, too.  It’s only people like me who have to rediscover all this again, years later.  What a juxtaposition!  Imagine someone designing an automobile today with high maintenance a given condition.  He’d be out of a job in no time.

It’s not just our expectations, but our attitudes that must have changed dramatically since 1959.  What’s even more surprising, we are ― generally speaking ― totally unaware of that.  How very startling.

It begs investigation.

It led to this essay.  Because there’s a final inescapable conclusion.

More than any other bias, it is our assumptions that contain, curtail and confine us.  In that process, they define  us as well.  Making the entire process so insidious, we’re totally unaware of what our assumptions are.

How can we know?

How can we see?

We begin with them!

You don’t believe me?

You assumed that old cars were just nuts and bolts.